JOURNEY’S DAWN’s attention to technical mastery creates an excellent platform for the unique setting of MADE IN ABYSS.
95 %
Imaginative and Intricate

Featured Image courtesy of Event Cinemas

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JOURNEY’S DAWN takes the beloved anime series MADE IN ABYSS and reshapes it into a film. Full of adventure, visual artistry, and mystery, the movie’s quality makes for a fantastic introduction — and reintroduction — to MADE IN ABYSS.  The movie starts with an explanation of the Abyss, a mysterious and dangerous place layered with strange terrain and terrible monsters. The audience meets Riko, a girl who wants to become a Cave Raider, and Reg, a robot boy with amnesia. Riko receives a strange letter from her mother, who disappeared into the Abyss years prior.

With a new determination to find Riko’s mother and the truth about Reg, the two embark on a journey deep into the Abyss. Along the way, they encounter monsters and trials like they’ve never seen before. JOURNEY’S DAWN covers the first half of the MADE IN ABYSS anime. It also features never-before-seen sequences from the director, Masayuki Kojima. It released in the United States on March 15. But subbed and dubbed versions of the movie will be played in select theaters on March 20 and 25. These screenings will have behind-the-scenes footage and introductions from the Japanese cast.

The full poster for MADE IN ABYSS: JOURNEY'S DAWN.
Image: Fathom Events

Before anything else, let me make it clear that I looked at this movie from the perspective of a stand-alone film. I did not watch or read the MADE IN ABYSS anime or manga before I saw this movie. With that knowledge, know that it’s an excellent introduction for people who are new to the series. Furthermore, if you are new to the series, the dubbed version is very accessible. The voice actors do an excellent job at sounding like squeaky children, and the lack of subtitles makes it even easier to pay attention to the gorgeous art.

Art Adds To The Story

JOURNEY’S DAWN clearly values the artistry of its animation. The first few minutes feature a stylized flashback of muted colors, large shading lines and old-fashioned swirling clouds. Reminiscent of a drawn map, these flashbacks bring a different mood to the history behind the Abyss. This mood resurrects periodically for effect in other explanations of the Abyss, and in Ozen’s personal history. Backgrounds use unique lighting, shadows, shapes, and color to continue building the mood in different scenes. Initially, the character design didn’t draw me nearly as much as the scenery. I had mixed feelings about the roundness of the main characters’ features. Compared to the intricacy of the monsters and backgrounds, the characters seemed too stylized.

However, the story continued in such a way that the roundness became a surprising contrast to their environment. The Abyss is dangerous and unknown, but these characters are visibly soft and squishy. It makes them seem sympathetic and trustworthy. Moreover, their appearance lets us know that they are in an environment harsher than where they belong. Recognizing that pattern also justified some of the sameness in facial design between the kids. As most of the children come from the same place, they adapted to a similar environment. It makes the main character Riko’s movement to the Abyss even more significant because she is outside her element and without her kin.

Riko and Reg running from a Crimson Splitjaw in the Abyss.
Image: IMDb

You might find the art in the rest of the movie familiar. In my view, I compared Orth and the Abyss to imagery from Miyazaki movies like CASTLE IN THE SKY or NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND. Said movies feature things present in MADE IN ABYSS, like old European-style towns and giant mushrooms. Accordingly, Osamu Masuyama of Studio Ghibli did much of the background art in JOURNEY’S DAWN.

An Astounding Team

Revealing the complex history and rules of MADE IN ABYSS would be confusing if done all at once. To avoid this, the movie introduces concepts gradually. While you could argue that its gradual pacing comes from its pacing in the TV anime, JOURNEY’S DAWN avoids feeling like an anime spliced into two hours. The movie alternates background information and plot, providing time to digest new concepts. And its careful planning makes each scene distinct. Though a couple of scenes do hiccup in their flow, it never negatively impacts the story’s progression.

A partial shot of Lyza, Riko's mother, with her eyes covered.
Image: IMDb

JOURNEY’S DAWN’s musical score helped build its story. The music ranged from traditional orchestral to Joe Hisaishi-style piano, and even to 80s-influenced electronic sounds. Some moments in the film even used an intentional silence. The variation aided the emotional nuance in this movie. For instance, when Riko and Reg descend through the Forest of Temptation, its steady orchestral music reminds listeners of traveling montages in adventure movies. Rather than the triumphant sound usually found in more cheerful scenes of travel, the music there is wary and melancholy.

The score subtly reminds us that despite their good pace and cheerful attitudes, Riko and Reg are heading further into danger. The score also aided in solidifying the film’s ending. Because the movie only covers the first half of the anime, the film ends with more questions than answers. Then, a swell in the sound caused the final scene’s tone to change. It transitioned into something conclusive and climactic. Even though questions still remained, it made me look forward to more content rather than feeling dissatisfied. Kadokawa must have had an amazing production team. They know how to balance their content out with audiovisual effects.

Movies are a team effort, and JOURNEY’S DAWN had excellent teamwork.

A Strange And Dark World In JOURNEY’S DAWN

MADE IN ABYSS doesn’t match its appearance. Its beautiful background art and cute children contrast the cruelty in the Cave Raider society. Locals, including Riko, treat the Cave Raiders as heroes. But the majority of the Cave Raiders suffer. Much like the mining towns Orth resembles, the city runs on the exploitation of endangered workers. Local propaganda convinces raiders to risk their lives to bring leaders rare artifacts. The Cave Raiders even established a rather morbid hierarchy based on how well someone can survive the Abyss.

As a result, people seem to have a disconnect with their own friends and family. They seem to expect one another to die or abandon them. It’s frighteningly Darwinian. Not to mention, it negatively impacts the children. Riko and Reg have been “tested” twice in JOURNEY’S DAWN. Each time, they try to please the people testing them by either besting them or accepting their guidance. It shows that Riko and Reg believe they need to earn others’ respect by meeting Cave Raider standards of strength. It’s an understandable reaction to their culture. But it’s also pretty sad.

Riko and Reg standing on top of a hill overlooking the city of Orth, and the Abyss.
Image: Sentai Filmworks

Of course, the culture doesn’t seem kind to children in general. Powerful adult figures threaten multiple characters with being “strung up” naked. Whether it’s a reflection on cave raiders or a reflection of real-life society’s problems, the scenes raise questions. JOURNEY’S DAWN strongly implies that people in Orth believe in, or previously believed in, torture. With the implication that there were people at the Abyss long ago, Orth’s social structure of exploitation and abuse echoes colonialism. Ultimately, Orth’s disturbing culture is realistic. It has an internal logic and affects the behavior of the characters. It’s well-executed in both details and clear explanations. Patterns like these make JOURNEY’S DAWN that much more interesting.

A Mystery Woven In JOURNEY’S DAWN

At first, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to enter the Abyss. As Riko and Reg descended, they became guinea pigs. We watch them grapple with monsters, dangerous terrain, and curses, and see others affected by the Abyss through their eyes. Slowly, we understand that the Abyss has power over others. But by the end of the film, we still don’t know all the rules that govern the Abyss. And not knowing the rules is curiosity-inducing. I found myself genuinely interested in where the kids would wind up. At least part of that is in wondering how the Abyss works. What supernatural qualities does the Abyss have? Why does it have these properties? And of course, what lies at the bottom? With all these questions still lingering, it’s akin to a cliffhanger, and makes the sequel that much more promising.

Thankfully, the sequel is already complete. MADE IN ABYSS: WANDERING TWILIGHT aired in Japan on January 18, 2019. After it’s translated, it should hopefully be released in the United States within the next few months. Of course, the continuation of JOURNEY’s DAWN can be found in the second half of the anime. But I appreciate that the movie provides extra scenes. Especially considering that they blend so seamlessly with the already existing media, I think it’s worthwhile to have the chance to gain even more insight.

Riko and Reg in the dark of the Forest of Temptation, using their hats for light.
Image: Fathom Events

While watching JOURNEY’S DAWN, I had to pause for breaks a few times. Each pause showed me how much I enjoyed the movie because I spent my time away from the film wondering what would come next. I wanted to get back as soon as possible. Sure, the art and the premise enticed me, but the mysteries of the Abyss pulled me in. I look forward to delving deeper.

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